Wardell Harvey’s wicked wage theft

Acme House (Photo credit: Owen Byrne)

Wardell Harvey claims that, from the age of 15 years old, he was robbed, wrongly terminated and misjudged by restaurants where he worked.

“I’ve been working in the restaurant industry since I was 15 and since then have never worked a job where I haven’t experienced some wrong doing from my employer,” he says. “This isn’t a coincidence, though. They want us to not know our rights so that we can be complicit in them taking our money while we make nothing.”

He believes that attitudes against workers and the underestimation of their talents have circumvented their ability to make a livable wage. As an activist and community leader, Harvey spreads his story as a restaurant worker to champion labor rights in New Orleans.

Harvey is a hustler, in the best sense of the term. As with many of his co-workers, serving was never his only occupation. His aunt, Miss Jackie—who also worked in the restaurant industry—got him his first job at Mike Anderson’s Seafood in the French Quarter. It was the epitome of a tourist’s destination, serving classic Louisiana cuisine on the Riverwalk, which overlooked the Mississippi River. Harvey started out there shucking oysters but quickly was asked to wait tables and serve as a food runner when staff members did not come in for their shifts.

At Mike Anderson’s, where he worked for six years, Harvey met Shawn Davis, one of his many mentors. Davis taught Harvey how to comprehensively read his paystubs. In Louisiana, it is not legally required to provide a paystub to an employee. Davis stressed how important it is to be able to view each deduction, so workers know how much they are making. Davis also showed Harvey how to break down pay-per-hour rates compared to tips, to make sure he was earning the federal minimum wage. If not, Davis maintained, his employer owed him the difference. Davis reviewed Harvey’s pay slips and said that his paycheck didn’t indicate he was being paid what he should have been. Harvey asked his management about the discrepancy but says he was given dismissive answers.

At 21, Harvey went to work at the famous Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter. In the beginning, he shucked oysters but soon became a server. He mainly worked the evening hours, when tourists piled in to get their oyster fix. Harvey genuinely enjoyed his job and stayed there for 13 years. He soon realized, however, that the numbers on his pay stub didn’t add up. Again he says he went to management, asked questions, and got abstract answers. Even with the perceived discrepancy in funds, the money he made helped supplement his income as a barber, his other gig. It took four shifts at Acme, however, to make ends meet with his pay at the barbershop. Harvey had become the father of three children, which motivated him to look more closely at his pay and deductions.

Harvey had been in the restaurant industry for the majority of his life. But he was eventually fired from Acme, he says, because he “asked too many questions.” He moved on to Felix’s Oyster House in the French Quarter.

“Working in a restaurant is like constructing a house in which the builders do not pay you. Instead, customers come in and tip you based off of how much they enjoyed their time walking around the house you are trying to build,” he says. “That in itself is wrong. But now imagine that you are already dealing with a messed up system; and, on top of that, the builders are coming in and stealing a portion of that money.”

The legal base pay for Louisiana restaurant workers is $2.13 an hour. They are expected to make enough in tips to earn a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Harvey is now working with the Restaurant Opportunities Center to educate restaurant workers on their rights and advocate for policy changes in Louisiana.

Wage theft is not uncommon in the New Orleans restaurant industry, according to staff at the ROC and the Workplace Justice Project. Few restaurant workers come forward, however, because many servers are not educated on how to read their paystub or know how to seek help. Louisiana is under federal wage law, which places the burden of monitoring wage activity on the United States Department of Labor, Wage an Hour Division. Filing a claim with the feds to receive underpaid wages from an employer is complex and challenging to navigate. A worker must have enough pay stubs to calculate how much money he or she made per hour and per pay period, to prove proper payment. Because employers are not required to provide pay stubs for every pay period, many employees aren’t able to actively keep track of their regular rate of remuneration. Those who work overtime also have to calculate how many of their hours should be paid at the rate of time and a half. As a result, employees first have to make sure that their employers counted their overtime to see if they were sufficiently compensated.

Harvey’s story demonstrates the need for restaurant workers to be strategic when keeping track of their pay. Several preventative strategies can assist in the short term and long term when trying to avoid or prove wage theft:

  • Keep track of working hours. Keeping track of your hours may seem obvious, but knowing how many hours worked each shift and having physical copies of records assist in any wage investigation. Many pay stubs do not have an “hours worked” section, so if workers are going to break down the regular rate of pay, they will need to know (and prove) how many hours worked.
  • Always verify that a pooling tip system is being conducted legally. Many restaurants in New Orleans pool tips, and although it is not illegal, the practice does have strict guidelines. Anyone who is not directly serving a customer should not be a part of the pooling tip system. Meaning that hostesses, chefs, and managers should not be getting a portion of a particular waiter’s tips. Even if there is a pooling system, the total amount of tips taken from each worker cannot exceed 15 percent of that person’s total earnings.
  • Always print copies of paystubs. Many restaurants use online platforms to keep records, which may be more efficient but also can lock workers out of the system. Physical copies of paystubs will ensure that if a complaint is to be filed, workers can do so without company intervention.